Shift gears... now

All revolutions are not political. Some are mechanical. The steam engine fundamentally changed human lives then automobiles began to replace horses. Now electric vehicles (EVs) are revolutionising global mobility but most people remain skeptical. Last year 5.6 million EVs were sold globally, of which half were sold in China. Actually the EVs recorded concerned cars and China is actually using many more electric two-wheelers. EVs are also becoming very important in USA, Europe, Japan and other countries so every auto major in cars, bikes and other vehicles is investing heavily into developing and marketing them. The Nissan Leaf, that sold 3,60,000 EVs last year, is the world leader today though the classy Tesla, that sold 240,000 EVs is perhaps the best known. Other well known brands are selling well. Toyota and VW are even working together on EV development.

The world now recognises that some 900 million vehicles fueled by fossil fuels are major polluters but more importantly the industry realises that fossil fuel vehicles are doomed because EVs are much more efficient than internal combustion (IC) engines and thus cheaper to own and use in the long term. Many people however have had reservations in adopting this new technology because many of the early EVs had been very expensive, heavy and had limited driving range but better new technologies are now making EVs affordable and popular. 

An IC engine is inherently inefficient as it has to waste about 70 per cent of its power to suck in the fuel in one cylinder, compress it in another and then expel the exhaust gasses from a third. It has to also waste energy in a gearbox, cooling system, turbo chargers, etc. An electric motor just spins efficiently in one direction so that almost all the energy is delivered to the wheels. This difference in power efficiency means that the torque, or power delivery, of a 100 hp electric motor is roughly the same as a 300 hp IC engine but a typical 100 hp IC engine delivers 100 hp only at its maximum rated speed and normally operates at about a third of this peak power unlike an electric motor that delivers a constant power output. So an EV can quickly accelerate from standstill to top speed without any need of gears. But an EV makes no sound so it needs a sound generator to warn other road users.

India today has more than 20 makes of e-rickshaws, about five electric scooters and 10 electric motorcycles that are mostly made in the unorganised sector using kits mainly imported from China that has vigorously adopted EVs. Today almost all their two-wheelers including pedal cycles are electrified. China went further and also became the world leader in solar energy with huge exports of solar panels.

Electric vehicles in India
The recently launched Hyundai Kona SUV clearly demonstrates the experience of driving a luxurious modern electric car. It looks a bit like a Hyundai Creta but its small electric motor has a huge torque of 40.27 kgm that delivers roughly as much power to the wheels as a big 2,800 cc IC engine at full throttle resulting in furious acceleration from standstill to 100 kmph in just 9.7 seconds. 

It can also travel a huge distance of about 450 km on a full charge. The charge from a domestic electric point may need 19 hours but a wall mounted AC (alternating current) system will give a full charge in 6 hours. A portable DC quick charge device (provided with the car) can however provide an 80 per cent charge in 57 minutes. Best of all the electric consumption for a full charge will be just 39 units of electricity that would cost just Rs 200 or roughly 20 per cent of the price of equivalent fuel for a diesel engine. Buyers who are concerned about the life of the expensive lithium-ion battery pack will be reassured that Hyundai is offering a huge eight-year warranty with virtually unlimited mileage. As there are so few moving parts there is also very little need for service during its lifetime. Hyundai has already sold over 300,000 electric cars worldwide and knows that what happens elsewhere in the world will also happen in India eventually. 

Heavy transport vehicles travel long distances with big engines that consume huge quantities of fuel. The country will need a network of recharging stations for electric trucks and buses but instead of recharging points they can use swapping stations where the complete battery pack can be quickly removed and replaced with another pack. 

In the recent Budget the government announced steps to encourage EVs by reducing the GST from 12 per cent to 5 per cent and concessions on customs duty on the imported components. There are however no subsidies and the huge savings in fossil fuel consumption, foreign exchange savings and reduced pollution justify more subsidies.

When EVs become popular there will be a big reduction in the imports of petroleum products though they will still be needed for the existing cars, bikes, trucks, tractors and buses. It may take another decade before all the IC engines are scrapped. This event will also mark the economic decline of all the oil rich countries with a huge reduction in pollution. Global warming may slow down to stabilise world weather, stop the melting of the glaciers and save the environment.

The author is automotive journalist & analyst  



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